Luck is like buses. You wait ages for one that never turns up, and you walk five miles home in the drizzle pondering the futility of existence. I found myself with a unusually virulent strain of luck recently though, and won two tickets to the Society of Independent Brewers’ BeerX festival in Sheffield via a competition from Sheffield beer week. Sweet enough really, i’d wanted to go for a few years but usually had other plans due to the proximity of the festival to my birthday, but to seal the deal I also won a Facebook competition run by SIBA and ended up with £50 worth of beer tokens too. I’m not normally this much of a fortunate git, honest.
BeerX is more than just a festival, it also comprises the SIBA AGM, with talks and panel discussions on relevant topics for its members, as well as an exhibitors section for brewing related business to pitch their goods and services. Of course, any trade focused event should include a gigantic piss up too, and with over 300 beers rotating over the four days, there’s plenty to choose from.
The main section of the festival is held in the defrosted main rink of IceSheffield, with a huge bar running almost the full length of the arena, forested with hand-pump and keg fonts. Abundant seating too, with plenty of large tables set up, or if you fancied you could take your drink and sit behind the glass in the ice hockey arena stands. There was also a couple of smaller island-bars, one staffed and stocked by breweries from Barcelona and Valencia, and others offering snacks and coffee.
Also, outside there was a ‘Brewers Yard’ setup, which was a new addition this year. Actually a large, temperature controlled marquee, there were individual stalls from breweries across the UK, staffed by the brewers themselves in most cases, with a couple of keg fonts each as well as their bottles or cans. Street food trucks were also lined up outside, with seemingly every type of beer-induced craving catered for, i was especially taken with the Banh Mi truck offering Vietnamese-style baguettes, and went back for seconds.
So far, so good – great setup with easy access around the venue, tons of staff and plenty of room for the growing crowd across the day. Particularly pleasing was that rather than the usual beer fest, take a glass and reuse it throughout the day custom, you were given a fresh glass with every drink, saving ending up with a stouty-hoppy dreggy mess and having to give it a swill under the tap in the loos. Mind you, when your event and glasses are all sponsored by a large insurance company, you can probably afford to have such a luxury on offer. BeerX is, for a beer event, uncharacteristically swish, and for some possibly a bit corporate, but not in a brash way – it’s just that everything is done well, and without having to set priorities in order to break even. The exception is the toilets, which while clean, were of the portable kind and with sanitiser rather than soap and hot water, but given that the main toilet facilities were in use by skaters and families in the smaller rink next door, this was understandable.
Getting down to it, we started in the main hall, and took our time choosing what to drink, which proved difficult. I started with a ‘safe’ choice – Salopian’s Automaton IPA, which didn’t let me down, but given the sheer number of beers on offer, there were inevitably some duds. I tried to put my pumpclip/branding prejudices to one side, and had to, as even for a relatively seasoned drinker, there were lots of breweries represented that i hadn’t heard of. Quite often, differentiating between beers at festivals by memory can be difficult, so i did a quick tweet review of each Beer i tried – 19 in total (thirds of course). Most of the beer i enjoyed tended to come from the Brewers Yard area, and the standouts were Hardknott’s Brownian Motion Porter, The Little Beer Corporation‘s 1917 Imperial Pils and One Mile End‘s Blood Orange Wheat double IPA. I’d say that overall I had about a 60% success rate, and while disappointed by some i thought i would like, was equally surprised by other breweries i’d snappily written off.
Having the breweries representing themselves added to a friendly atmosphere, and everyone was more than happy to chat and offer a taster or three. SIBA are obviously keeping an eye on smaller festivals around the UK and its good to see them recognising the connection between drinker and brewer as something that is valued and worth encouraging. A big craft love in isn’t to everyone’s interest though, but if you fancied sitting, getting steadily mashed in front of the rugby on the big screens there was plenty of space to do so.
As I’ve discussed before, there could be seen to be a fork in the road between craft and non-craft events, bars and breweries, and while unintentional in the main, a them and us mentality from drinkers who have a strong preference in either camp. All the better then, that events such as BeerX have a foot in each firkin, as outside of the hardcore beer drinker, most people are oblivious to the debates that we find so enthralling – and to have something that features the full spectrum should ensure that casual beer drinkers get a full view of the panorama, not just one side of the peak.